2011-05-17

A Fortnight With GNOME3

A fortnight with GNOME3

I'm a skeptic of "revolutionary" change. Most [all?] revolutionary changes result in epic-fail; everyone who has been in IT for more than a decade knows this. And there have been no shortage of predictions that GNOME3 will face this same fate. KDE endured this storm recently with version 4. Anyone unfortunate enough to be on the openSUSE user lists remembers the swarm of incessant nattering nabobs that was kicked up when the distro switched from KDE3 to KDE4. But change seems to be in the wind: KDE with version 4, Canonical deciding to hoe a proprietary row with Unity, and GNOME developers finally launching GNOME3.

I've been to several GNOME3 talks at Ohio LINUX given by GNOME team members; I've seen it demonstrated and I understood, at least vaguely, the ideological premise. As a hard-core groupware guy the idea of focusing on the actual workflow of the user was like a marketing pitch designed with people like me as the target audience. But ideology is a dangerous master; ideologues usually end up skidding face-first across the rough ground of reality. Take away the maximize and minimize buttons? Remove, or even refactor, the task bar? Get rid of the system / notification / whatever-junk tray? Do that and the hue and cry will be so loud you'll never get a chance to explain your ideology [as though anyone but you cared in the first place].

But now it seems that hue and cry will fall on deaf ears; there isn't much of a refuge. Canonical, KDE, and GNOME - everyone is moving. So it is time to move. I installed GNOME3. I bit-the-bullet and used it.

Now a fortnight later... I like it. It is better. Performance is improved and common operations are smoother. Doing things like navigating applications, which was before a combination of launchers, menus, and third-party components like GNOME-Do, is significantly more intuitive. I should say: they are more intuitive once you get over the habituation of how you were doing it before. I can see the designer's intent. With GNOME2 my desktop usage was efficient but I'd made it that way; my desktop was different than every other GNOME2 desktop [and conversely their desktops were different from mine]. Installing a modern LINUX distribution like openSUSE 11.4 gives me 99.44% of the applications I need; but I still have to go about making the desktop configuration efficient for me with launchers, etc... No more with GNOME3. GNOME3 provides the functionality of GNOME-Do and other GNOME2 third-party enhancements and drops the cruft I was always, unknowingly, fighting against.

Yes, some changes seem a bit arbitrary, like removal of the maximize and minimize buttons [you can turn them back on BTW, using the very nice GNOME Tweak Tool]. But how often do I really minimize anything anymore? Something close to never.

[UPDATE#1: I should have included a link to sloshy's very helpful post "How To Tweak GNOME 3 To Your Needs". So I've now rectified that error. Please note that I don't actually tweak GNOME3 much or install the various GNOME Shell extensions which are available. I recommend you really give GNOME3 vanilla an honest try. His post "10 Things I Love About GNOME 3" is also an interesting read - and helps explain some of the GNOME3 ideology. I should also point out that there are at least two ways to maximize a window in vanilla GNOME3 so the removal of maximize button seems reasonable. Minimization in GNOME3, lacking a task bar, is awkward - so removal of the minimize button in order to discourage the behavior seems reasonable as well. As I said originally: I never minimize anyway.]

Yes, the task bar is gone. This I was certain I would notice. But after a few days I didn't. The much improved Alt-Tab (application switch) and Alt-` (window switch) is far more productive than the task bar [which required use of the mouse]. Do I need a list to remind me of which applications are running? No.

Marking an application as a favorite, creating the GNOME3 equivalent of a launcher, is intuitive. This is a big improvement over trying to find an application in the menus and then awkwardly dragging it to some empty space on the toolbar. In GNOME3 it is also possible to drag an application icon into a specific workspace to start it on that workspace - which is nothing short of elegant.

There are also long needed improvements. GNOME has always had excellent screen-capture capability. GNOME3 now provides integrated screencast capture. The need for third-party tools like GNOME-Do for launching and the tracker applet for searching have been eliminated. It is all built in, as it should be.

So after my fortnight I look at overwhelmingly negative articles and I wonder... what desktop environment are they talking about? Because I don't see their criticisms in GNOME3. Perhaps they are booting it up and just test-driving it for a few hours? That would certainly be frustrating. But quotes like "No matter how you look at GNOME Shell ... you are going to do a lot of clicking" is just incorrect. I do far less "clicking" in GNOME3. By the end of that article I don't recognize the DE he is talking about; it certainly isn't GNOME3.

None of this is to say that there aren't valid criticisms of GNOME3.

Ideologically the emphasis on making a one-size-fits-all DE is misguided. Talking about one DE for both my large-screen i7 laptop and a small low-power mobile device does not make sense. Comparing some facebook/gmail jockey's usage of a tablet to someone doing real work is nonsensical. But I have confidence that ideology will be tempered by the reality of these very different use-cases. GNOME Shell seems flexible enough to accommidate both; thus being the same while being different.

Technically, there are some dot-zero kind of warts. The network manager interface isn't nearly as robust or as feature complete as the excellent interface provided in GNOME2; the absence of VPN support is particularly painful. Not all applications currently support startup-notification so dragging a launcher to a specific workspace doesn't always work.


[UPDATE#2:Our web developer pointed out that VPN support is now available in the the openSUSE 11.4 GNOME3 Network Manager. Sure enough - it works. The only option I don't see is how to enable proxyarp for a PPTP connection. That is one of the biggest negatives taken care of; now I can't think of a compelling reason not to recommend GNOME3.]

Maybe GNOME3, most specifically because of its weak Network Manager, isn't ready for your desktop quite yet. But surf on over to the excellent GNOME3 website and take a look. Go into GNOME3 with an Open mind and I think you'll discover that you like it.

7 comments:

  1. Did they get rid of 1 pixel wide window resizing?

    Does it now require a kick butt video accelerator, or does it still work with older hardware? I can loan you a 486, maxed out with 16 MB of RAM and a 200 MB hard disk, if you'll do an install and review. Smaller systems used to support 35 users.

    While i, like you, have my hands on the keyboard, the rest of my family uses the mouse, maximizes windows, and so on. The UI has to be able to cope with all users.

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  2. Re: Stephen
    > Did they get rid of 1 pixel wide window resizing?

    No, the window border/handle is still too thin IMO. I assume this is adjustable somehow but I haven't looked into it ye.

    >Does it now require a kick butt video accelerator, or
    >does it still work with older hardware?

    It seems to work well on any reasonable hardware.

    >I can loan you a 486, maxed out with 16 MB of RAM and
    >a 200 MB hard disk, if you'll do an install and
    >review. Smaller systems used to support 35 users.

    It is completely unreasonable to expect a modern DE to work on such hardware. In fact, I doubt that system can even run LibreOffice with tolerable performance. Such systems were completely obsolete years ago for any purpose other that packet switching.

    >While i, like you, have my hands on the keyboard, the
    >rest of my family uses the mouse, maximizes windows,
    >and so on. The UI has to be able to cope with all
    >users

    I believe it does cope with all users. But using the pointing device for inappropriate actions - actions that don't require pointing - is less efficient. The DE should not be obligated to pretend such uses are anything other than what they are [an inappropriate use of the pointing device]. Click-for-click I find GNOME3 to be the same for chronic pointing device users; but users can more easily adopt other, more efficient, modes.

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  3. With a test run that left me frustrated, partially because I couldn't get wireless up, and mostly because I felt disoriented with the new approach. My gui training wheels were Geos/Windows 3.1.

    This. changes. things.

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  4. I still miss GEOS as well [Commodore 128 version] and later GeoWorks on the PC [8086 @ 10MHz - Zoom! Actually, it was pretty fast]. Most significantly I miss the desktop paged notepad/notebook where you could group related objects [as icons]. That worked pretty well. GNOME3 does that - sort of - with workspaces; but they aren't persistent. I hope Zeitgeist and the activity journal will finally bring back some functionality of that ilk - as Dashboard [what became Beagle] tried to do years ago.

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